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Features

Building a Career from Different Income Streams

A guide to a less traditional approach to earning a living.


We grew up learning about traditional jobs and career paths. None of us was encouraged to juggle wearing many hats and taking on different projects. This idea of multiple income streams that add up to be equal or more than a full-time salary, or “portfolio career” (a concept we explored through “Love It or Leave It” by Samantha Clarke), is more common than it once was. We talked to experts who are living proof that your career does not have to be a linear journey to flourish, and that you don’t need to be confined to just one type of work forever.

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Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

Productivity expert Tiago Forte of Forte Labs explored the idea of a new kind of working through his piece “The Rise of the Full-Stack Freelancer.” When he published it in 2017, this idea was seen as edgy and experimental, but now this kind of working has proven to be a new kind of stable where the smart thing to do is to not have all your career or financial eggs in one basket, so to say. 

“Having diversity of income streams means you can mix and match the different ways you want to work, how you want to spend your time.”

You no longer need to use the same skill set in all the work you do. Having diversity of income streams means you can mix and match the different ways you want to work, how you want to spend your time, the clients you want to work with, and frequency in which you want to get paid. And this can evolve as your priorities shift. “As a freelancer, you never want to have only one client or the majority of your income coming from one client,” Forte says, noting that otherwise being a freelancer isn’t that different from someone who is working remotely.

Financial expert Paco de Leon of The Hell Yeah Group was laid off from her first real job, “I think that trauma of having my income taken away in an instant really colored my perspective,” she says. She also knows that she gets bored easily, so a style of working where she’s a jack of all trades, master of none suits her better. (She also knows when to hand things off to people who have that focus to take her ideas to the next level.)

Consider your business model

De Leon recommends making sure you have a stable income stream before you take attention away from it. She warns, “people think that multiple revenue streams is like multitasking; it’s quite the opposite; it’s all about shifting your focus from one line of business to another.”

She recommends letting your audience, customers, and fans tell you what they want. “Listen to them, speak to them, ask them what they struggle with. From a pure business perspective, if you can understand when your market wants something from you and if they are willing to pay for it (or can afford to), creating other revenue streams just becomes a natural evolution of your business,” she advises.

Testing ideas is key. Forte advises that when considering something like an online course, start small. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have big ideas, but keep in mind feedback cycles are slow when you set out to build everything up front. He recommends teaching live over Zoom, and “treat the early version of the course as a premium group coaching experience.” It’s a great way to collect feedback before shifting into a paid workshop model.

And while it can be tempting to want to monetize everything you do, de Leon advises against it. “Some projects will pay you back by creatively energizing you or letting you play and fail and experiment; that can be valuable,” she says. 

Create an “income pie”

“For years I believed the myth that working hard and working a lot was how you make more money,” illustrator and author Andrea Pippins admits. “After freelancing for several years and thinking about how to grow my business, I realized taking on more work was not an option because my workload was already at its max.” 

“Seeing how my income falls into pie charts reminded me that I don’t need to do more work, instead I need to put more energy into the work that aligns with my creative and professional goals.”

This became apparent through creating pie charts—an exercise she adapted from freelance writer and photographer Lola Akinmade Åkerström. As an illustrator, Pippins makes the chart quite visual compared to what’s generated by a software program.

“Seeing how my income falls into the pie charts reminded me that I don’t need to do more work, instead I need to put more energy into the work that aligns with my creative and professional goals, and projects that reflect the value of my time,” Pippins points out. They also help her create strategies for where she wants to grow her business, and what to say no to. She adds, “The biggest thing these charts helped me see was how important it is to advocate for myself and the work I create.”

Textile artist Jen Hewett found it key to acknowledge that her income can fluctuate from year to year. She uses the breakdown at the end of the year to reflect on what’s working (or not). She adds, “Each pool of income requires different amounts of effort.” It’s also worth noting that her income pies reflect revenue, not profit, and many of her products have extra expenses to manufacture.

The quest for passive income

A lot of people talk about the desire to earn “passive” income. You invest up front (time and money) to help earn money on a rolling basis—in other words, you can earn money while you sleep and provide a source of steady income over time. 

Passive income can take many forms including digital downloads, e-books, teaching virtual classes, selling stock imagery, licensing your artwork, creating a subscription or membership service, and book royalties. Even passive income sources require varying levels of upkeep.

Forte sees the goal as having different kinds of income on the spectrum between active and passive income. “This idea of a diversified portfolio of income streams is completely accepted in finance, but that idea is just starting to enter the world of employment,” he notes.

Pivoting from full-time to multiple income streams

De Leon warns when you’re fully self-employed you’ll need to earn more working for yourself than for a company, keeping in mind “you’ll need to pay both employer and employee taxes, your own health insurance, fund your own retirement, and cover your operating overhead.” (We agree!) However, Forte reminds us, employment can be flexible. For instance, you may not need to earn as much as you did before if you decide to move somewhere with a lower cost of living. (We have more financial tips for the creative career in this guide.)

“You may not need to earn as much as you did before if you decide to move somewhere with a lower cost of living.”

Additionally, it no longer has to be this dramatic idea of quitting your job. “There are so many incremental ways to make that transition over time,” Forte says. He suggests negotiating to go part-time or remote, taking on a side gig, or creating content.

Hewett knew that in order to fulfill her goal of becoming a full-time artist it was not an all-or-nothing thing. She kept consulting in HR part-time for a few years, eventually cutting it back completely. She knows she could always go back if she had to. 

Consulting for 12-32 hours a week gave her a nice, flexible schedule, allowing her to spend the rest of the time in her studio. “It allowed me make a lot of mistakes, do a lot of experimentation, and ultimately build an art career that was based on finding my own voice. I was able to figure out who I was as an artist without having to worry about my work supporting me,” Hewett says. She acknowledges you may have to work two jobs to make it work. 

More Posts by Anne Ditmeyer

Anne S. Ditmeyer is a creative coach and consultant based in Paris, France who works with clients around the world. She’s the founder of Prêt à Voyager, which explores the intersection of travel and design. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram as @pretavoyager.


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